In a recent op-ed in the Roanoke Times, activist and organic farmer Anthony Flaccavento argues that Democrats must pay a lot more attention to rural America if they hope to rebuild the party. It is a startling proposition, if only because it rarely gets articulated, but one that should be a central part of a progressive agenda in 2018 and beyond. It also takes aim at the stale debate in democratic and progressive circles about whether the party should “lean to the center” to try to appeal to imagined swing voters, including the so-called “white working class,” or aim instead to “energize the base.”
To mark Labor Day, professors WIlliam E. Forbath and Brishen Rogers published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that labor law should be an important political objective in rejuvenating worker activism. Although labor unions overall are in a state of decline, there is significant activism pushing for raising minimum wages–for example Fight for $15–and related efforts to support workers. And in urban areas and some economic sectors, there are still a significant number of unionized workers, while at the same time workers in other industries are attempting to organize. This activity is important for unions of course, but it is also important for working people and the middle class in general because unions have always played crucial roles in progressive movements. That is why business elites and their allies in government have consistently worked to undermine them. Per Forbath and Rogers: “Without a rejuvenated labor movement, it’s almost inconceivable that breakthrough reforms will come to pass.”
The failed attempts by the republicans in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) have yielded some surprising results. The process itself spurred many Americans to pay close attention to health care policy and to republican shenanigans. In the end, instead of sneaking the legislation through quickly with minimal deliberation, conservative senators and representatives were confronted by firestorms of opposition at town hall meetings. Press coverage and continued protests have kept the issue alive.
Even more consequential, as a result of the awful bills put forward (and passed in the House), there has been a shift in public opinion toward the view that everyone has a right to affordable health insurance. Polling has found increasing support for single payer or Medicare for all laws. In addition, many governors, including republican governors, actively opposed the repeal legislation, because of what it would do to Medicaid and the prospect that large numbers of their constituents would lose insurance. And if we consider GOP claims about the legislation–dishonest as they were–that it would improve healthcare and reduce costs for everyone, it is clear they had no choice but to play this game on a field where healthcare for all was a basic ground rule.
With the election of Donald Trump and the ascendance of a radical republican party, it is a commonplace to assert that the United States is passing through a moment of great uncertainty and great peril. At the same time, there has been a flowering of progressive movements–going back several years in many cases–and political activism. But for many progressives it is not clear how activism translates into political change.
If you are wondering how the power of protest works, Francis Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America offers some answers. Despite the fact that this book was written in 2006–a lifetime ago given the current pace of dizzying events–Piven’s conceptual approach and historical analysis lend many helpful insights about how protest movements can affect political coalitions and electoral politics.
In left-progressive circles the term “intersectionality” has gained a certain currency. To be sure, it is an awkward term that sounds like academic jargon. But it is an important concept because it explains some of the various ways injustice and discrimination work as well as the opposition to injustice. The classic case is of black women workers who face both race and gender discrimination. Race and gender “intersect” to put them in a double bind. And if we add class to the mix, the forces of discrimination and repression only multiply.
Resisting such discrimination and power imbalances could go in two directions. In one, power relations and identities could isolate these women from potential allies such as African American men, non-black women, and other working-class people. The other direction is where broader power imbalances that victimize ethnic minorities, women, and laborers expand the potential for solidarity among them. This second scenario suggests the potential to build alliances across race, class, and other identity lines, a potential, it so happens, that is already being activated.
Given the urgency of responding to accelerating climate change, the announcement by Donald Trump that the US was withdrawing from the Paris climate framework is a potential disaster for the future of humanity. For many in the US and around the world, it is also dismaying to see the US revert to the role played by the George Bush administration as spoiler–but in this case, times ten.
For progressives interested in taking back this country and making it a sane and functional place that works for everyone, Theda Skocpol’s article back in January is required reading. It explains how the democrats need to organize and prioritize in order to become competitive again nation-wide, an argument that both Tom Perez and Keith Ellison, among many others, appear to be in alignment with. But, her insistence on the democratic party as being the single organizational locus for resistance may be too limited given the proliferation of progressive organizations that have emerged in the past several months.
In Blueprint for Revolution, Srdja Popovic surveys non-violent movements that have brought about revolutionary change. In his words:
“It’s a book about the revolutions launched by ordinary peole who believe that if they get together and think creatively, they can topple dictators and correct injustices.”
If you are someone who wants to learn more about effecting political change, Blueprint is a good book to pick up. But be aware that this book is more about social movements working outside of formal political institutions than it is about directly influencing legislation, electing progressive candidates to office, and related topics. If your primary interest is in this kind of politics, this book will not offer many direct insights, but it will still provide some interesting and useful ideas about how change can be brought about. And it’s a good read.
The health of the resistance movement seems to have become a matter of concern lately. I have engaged in discussions on social media and email with friends who are worried that after the Women’s Marches and other immediate actions such as the airport rescue demonstrations, the amazing energy we saw a couple of months ago has died down considerably. And, on this day, when the US House of Representatives passed the Affordable Care Act repeal and replace bill (AHCA), one might be inclined to think that the resistance has lost some of its mojo.